St. Paul’s School, which produced many sports greats, closes its doors
Last Friday morning, a group of people huddled in front of an edifice that has been a fixture of the Jersey City community, particularly the Greenville section, and bade farewell. St. Paul’s (Greenville) School closed its doors for the last time, ending a 130-year reign of educating youngsters with excellence and style.
Tears were shed, hugs were passed, and words of disbelief were offered. It’s still unthinkable to many that the Greenville section can actually survive without St. Paul’s School after it had been a safe haven for academics and athletes for so many years.
From a personal standpoint, it is my grammar school alma mater – I was in St. Paul’s Class of 1975 – so the news of the school’s demise certainly hit very close to home and touched more than a few nerves.
However, it was also the breeding ground for some of the finest athletes and coaches to ever grace Jersey City and Hudson County. It was the place where legends were born and raised.
"I give speeches all over the country," said legendary St. Anthony basketball coach and Jersey City Recreation Director Bob Hurley. "And I always brag about the neighborhood where I grew up, the people I was associated with and the school where I went to. I tell everyone that I was from St. Paul’s and talk about what it meant to me to grow up from that school, from that schoolyard.
Added Hurley, "Hearing that the place has closed just evokes so many memories of being in the schoolyard, running in the halls when the bell rang. My first organized sports were played at St. Paul’s. When I wasn’t in school, I was in the St. Paul’s playground. It was a great school and I received a great education there."
Hurley was perhaps the greatest symbol to ever come out of St. Paul’s. He got his first coaching job at the school at age 17, helping to coach the grammar school team that featured his younger brother, Brian.
"I was just sitting in the gym, watching Brian, when they said they needed someone who was an adult to open and close the gym," Hurley said. "Since my brother was on the team and I was somewhat of an adult, I was chosen. Soon after, I was helping with the grammar team and then got involved in the practices. I was hooked. That’s how it all began."
At age 19, Hurley became the school’s athletic director. One of the first things Hurley did as an athletic director was give another fledgling coach a chance, a baseball wizard by the name of Eddie Ford. He’s now better known as "The Faa." His first coaching job was at St. Paul’s.
Hurley later became the school’s first-ever physical education teacher and ran a Jersey City Recreation Summer League in the St. Paul’s courtyard for many years that brought such renowned figures as Bill Willoughby, Dick Vitale, and the late Jim Valvano to St. Paul’s.
"We had some great summer leagues there," Hurley said. "Kids wanted to come from all over to play there. The area was so great that you were able to have multiple things going on, from touch football to box ball to basketball. Hundreds of kids were there all the time."
Hurley and Ford are not alone. George Blaney, the former Seton Hall and Holy Cross head coach, who currently is an assistant coach at the University of Connecticut, went there and played three sports there. Bucky Rineer, who played both professional baseball and football in the minor leagues and was the first star of the Jersey City Jets of the old Atlantic Football Conference, was a fixture at St. Paul’s. Tim Hawkes, the former Jersey City Councilman who was a college football star at Holy Cross and was a draft pick of the Green Bay Packers, was a St. Paul’s standout.
Bill DeFazio, the long-time girls’ basketball coach at Marist, and before that at St. Anthony, was at St. Paul’s for many years. DeFazio turned St. Paul’s into a Catholic Youth Organization dynasty. He coached football and basketball there and was the athletic director for more than a decade. To say that DeFazio dedicated his life to St. Paul’s sports would be a gross understatement. He was "Mr. St. Paul’s," from building locker rooms and trophy cases himself, to raising money for equipment and jackets, to organizing every facet of the program.
"When I heard news of this, there’s no question my thoughts went back to those years I spent there," DeFazio said. "We had some program then. You can go on and on, just talking about the athletes, just thinking about the tradition. I still run into people who want to talk about what St. Paul’s was like back then."
During his tenure as a coach, DeFazio won seven Hudson-Essex League football championships and three Little Guys CYO County basketball titles.
In 1974 to 1975, in unprecedented fashion, St. Paul’s won county championships in all three major sports – football, basketball, and baseball. I am very proud, still to this very day, to say that I was a member of those teams. I wore the jacket I received for winning the Hudson County baseball championship until it fell off my body. To this day, some 28 years later, winning that title was the proudest moment of my athletic life.
DeFazio remembers how his association with St. Paul’s athletics began. "I came home from Vietnam in 1969 and one of the first things I did was serve as an assistant coach under Tom Kelly with the football team," DeFazio recalled. "The next year, I was the head coach and the athletic director. Then, I coached the Little Guys basketball team. Times like this make me think of all the good times there, all the athletes and the coaches who came from St. Paul’s. It brings a lump to my throat. It is a shame. People there now don’t have a clue what went on."
One of the things DeFazio did as an athletic director was hire a 17-year-old kid named John Nagel to become the school’s track and field coach in 1977.
"Billy gave me a chance to become a coach," said Nagel, the long-time track and field coach and athletic director at St. Dominic Academy and also a graduate of St. Paul’s (Class of 1973). "He knew I ran at Hudson Catholic and told me that he wanted me to come coach the St. Paul’s team. It was the spring of my senior year in high school. I’ve been coaching ever since."
Nagel then became the athletic director, replacing DeFazio, from 1981 through 1984.
"I owe an awful lot to that place," Nagel said. "St. Paul’s was a very good school with firm discipline and a good sense of everything that is important. It says, ‘For God and country,’ on the marble outside the school. I truly believed that. As you grew older, the whole mystique about St. Paul’s grew. It was the "Courtyard," where everything happened. People from St. Paul’s had this real swagger about them. I have nothing but positive memories there."
Nagel pointed out that some influential people served as track coach at St. Paul’s, people like Ed Grant, a member of the New Jersey Track and Field Hall of Fame, Mike Mielko, the long-time track coach at Seton Hall Prep, and a fellow by the name of Gerald McCann, who ran at St. Paul’s and coached there, before going on to become Mayor of Jersey City.
DeFazio had to mention that his wife, Alice Schmidt DeFazio, the current women’s coach at New Jersey City University, Cathy Meyers O’Callahan, who is the girls’ coach at St. Anthony, and Margy O’Brien, who is the coach at St. Aloysius, are all from of St. Paul’s as well.
"It really is amazing when you think of all the athletes and coaches who came from St. Paul’s," DeFazio said. "When I die, a part of me will be left at St. Paul’s, in the courtyard, where it all began. It’s really sad. I don’t know if I can drive down the block [on Greenville Avenue] and ever have the same feeling again. The memories will always be there, but there will be something missing."
Yes, the memories will always be there, memories of dedicated coaches like the late Ray Wilson, the late Joe Kenny and the late Dick Branagan. Memories of the great athletes like Kevin Gorman, Carlos "Butchie" Lopez, Stephan Hodnett, Miles Suber, Zane Corbin, the late John Tardibuono, the late Kevin Stawicki, the late Juan "Chino" Ocasio, the late Jimmy Bedara, guys who were my friends, my teammates, who all made St. Paul’s the best place to be for youth athletes.
There were people to look up to, people like Bob Kilduff, who is a Jersey City police captain now. Back then, he was my boyhood idol. People like the Rochford brothers, Pat and Danny, who were great players at St. Anthony with Kilduff and helped to expand the reputation of St. Paul’s beyond just "the courtyard."
Those memories will always remain, but when a tradition, a legacy comes to an end, there’s always a gigantic sense of sadness. St. Paul’s represented a major part of my life.
It’s where my love of sports began. It’s where I learned about fair competition, where I learned about wanting to achieve more than anything else. It’s where I was first introduced to coaches who cared and took the time to teach.
It’s where I learned about life, through an incredible education, taught by dedicated Dominican nuns, who demanded excellence in the classroom.
It’s where I was introduced to several people who still remain my closest friends to this very day. My allegiance to John Rochford has been downright brotherly since we were five years old and remains that way. My friendship with Glenn Gardner, also a former girls’ basketball coach at St. Paul’s, has been steadfast and rock solid since sixth grade at that wonderful building on Greenville and Old Bergen Road.
And it’s where I was first introduced to people like Bob Hurley and Bill DeFazio, people who helped make St. Paul’s a truly great place.
Tears are shed today, because a legacy has closed.
"It was a great place to grow up," Hurley said. "You had the best of all worlds. Greenville was really like its own small town. It was like an urban version of Huck Finn. It’s really amazing to think that a school that once had an enrollment of 1,500 kids would drop to 200 and then close. Everything I’ve had always comes back to St. Paul’s."
And it always will.